The case of the Neandertal salmon

I’ve been doing a good amount of reading about Neandertal diets lately, and have some stuff to report. First, a recent paper by Hervé Bocherens, Gennady Baryshnikov and Wim Van Neer examines a Paleolithic forensic case. There are Black Sea salmon bones in several Middle Paleolithic sites in the Caucasus, of enough quantity to suggest they were an important part of the Neandertal diet in this region. There are no Neandertal bones in the relevant sites to yield stable isotope evidence, so the importance of these salmon to the overall diet cannot be directly assessed.

But there are cave bear and cave lion bones in the same caves, and some archaeologists have suggested that these carnivores might be in part responsible for accumulating salmon bones in the caves. So Bocherens and colleagues set out to test this possibility, by doing stable isotope analysis of the carnivores at one of the sites, Kudaro 3. They found that the lions and bears were not eating the salmon:

The carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotopic composition of cave lion and cave bears in the Middle Paleolithic cave site Kudaro 3 strongly suggests that these large carnivores were not consuming salmon and therefore were not responsible for the accumulation of salmon bones in the cave. It seems that hominins, in this case most probably Neandertals, were using this food resource. When the environment was providing direct access to abundant aquatic food resources such as anadromous salmon, it seems that Neandertals were not ignoring these resources. This conclusion is in agreement with recent work based on use-wear analyses of lithic artefacts that exhibit a broad-based subsistence for Neanderthals including fish consumption (Hardy and Moncel, 2011). Further isotopic investigations of Neandertal bone using sulphur isotopic composition in addition to carbon and nitrogen may help to document directly and to quantify the consumption of marine food resources in archaic hominins.

So that buttresses the case that Neandertals in the Caucasus were using salmon. It seems that we are moving beyond the demonstration that Neandertals occasionally used marine or aquatic resources, toward showing a consistent use of those resources in some areas of the Neandertal world.

References:

Bocherens H, Baryshnikov G, Van Neer W. 2013. Were bears or lions involved in salmon accumulation in the Middle Palaeolithic of the Caucasus? An isotopic investigation in Kudaro 3 cave. Quaternary International (in press) doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2013.06.026